Why Sri Lanka Could Determine U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia

Why Sri Lanka Could Determine U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia

by Srimal Fernando and Yashodha Rathnayake

It has been seventy-one years since Sri Lanka entered into formal relations with the United States. Since then, a new line on thinking on U.S.-Sri Lankan relations has emerged in foreign policy circles. Sri Lanka may have been viewed as a tiny and dispensible island nation in the past, but today it is seen as a strategic maritime asset that can potentially counterbalance China’s rapidly growing influence in the region. Given its position in the Indian Ocean Rim, it would be a mistake for the United States to discount Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to U.S. policy in the region, and stronger bilateral relations between the two countries may define the partnership of the 21stcentury.

Each year, 60,000 ships pass the coast of Sri Lanka. India and China, the fastest emerging nations based on GDP, lie to the north and east of this tiny island nation. To its south and east are the key nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and not far from its western shore lies the untapped potentials of the African continent and the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. As an active member of the twenty-two-member-state Indian Ocean Rim Association, Sri Lanka's ocean economy and possession of the world’s fifth-largest natural deep-water harbor at Trincomalee makes strengthening relations with Sri Lanka an attractive option. Once occupied by the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the location of the harbor, its updated infrastructure, and vast oil-storage capacity gives further impetus for revising the diplomatic orientation between the United States and Sri Lanka.

The development assistance extended to Sri Lanka since 1956 is a clear indication of the special importance Washington attaches to the nation. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports the bilateral development aid was worth over USD 2 billion. In recent years, Sri Lanka has enjoyed favorable economic conditions conducive to trade, tourism, and investment as a result of this development aid. Bilateral trade between Sri Lanka and the U.S. stands at USD 3.2 billion—export figures from its garment industry alone stands at USD 2.1 billion. Sri Lanka’s economic expansion points to a phenomenal potential for further growth. 

For Sri Lanka, the last seven decades of trade with and aid from the United States has enabled it to economically grow and in turn, make huge investments into upgrading and constructing new infrastructure. The outcomes of these efforts can be a huge potential benefit for the US as it builds its long-term security strategy to counter China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean. 

India, South Asia’s largest nation and a close ally of the US, is already pushing for stronger ties with its southern neighbor, Sri Lanka, under its “Neighborhood First” foreign policy doctrine. India’s projected economic growthin the next few years will naturally have a spillover effect on Sri Lanka, presenting further opportunities for the US to engage in this region. Trade instruments such as the South Asian Free Trade Area and the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade agreements are some of the gainful tools with which the US can use to access South Asia’s consumer markets.

Forging realistic and pragmatic positions on regional issues can lead to stronger cooperation and enhance relations between the US, Sri Lanka, India and other South Asian nations by making use of these benefits. These developments will not only strengthen economic ties between the U.S. and its South Asian allies, but also the defense agenda in this region. Maritime peace and stability are vital to the growth, progress and security of the region and to this effect, the U.S. Navy has announced the establishment of a strategic logistic hub on the island for U.S. Navy operations in the Indian Ocean.

To be sure, there are still significant challenges Sri Lanka must overcome, particularly the inconsistent nature of its relations with the United States, which has been disrupted since 2012 for various reasons. One that stands out was a controversial but American-backed 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) resolution against alleged war crimesby theSri Lankan military against the Tamil Tigers during the last phases of the Sri Lankan civil war. This resolution increasingly isolated Sri Lanka from its Western allies and ultimately led to a change in government in 2015. After reaching its lowest point during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure, relations between Sri Lanka and the U.S. are now regaining momentum and significantly advancing with President Maithripala Sirsena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm.

Making predictions about the future of U.S.-Sri Lankan relations is a challenging task. However, there is little doubt that Sri Lanka holds substantial priority in America’s national security agenda, especially with the growing Chinese influence in South Asia. The implementation of this far-sighted South Asian foreign policy requires the involvement of shared responsibilities between various agencies in both Sri Lanka and the United States, which will create the necessary preconditions for the U.S. to secure a stronger foothold on the island nation. 

Image: Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Courtesy of dronepicr / Flickr

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Srimal Fernando is a Ph.D. Research Scholar from Sri Lanka pursuing his doctoral research on “Political and Economic Integration in South Asia: A Prerequisite for Regional Community Building” at the Indian Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA) in India. He was the winner of the 2017 prestigious O.P Jindal Scholarship in India. 

Previously, he was awarded the South Asian University (SAU) Research Scholarship from 2014 to 2016. He completed his Masters in Philosophy (M Phil) in Sociology from South Asian University (SAU) established under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Fernando also holds a Masters of Arts (MA) degree in Public Policy and Development Studies from Sri Lanka. Recently he won the 2018/2019 Best Journalist of the year award in South Africa and is the Global editor of Diplomatic Society of South Africa.

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Yashodha Rathnayake is a Sri Lankan scholar who is currently pursuing her Bachelors of Arts degree (Hons) in English at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka. She is a third year honours undergraduate scholar following classics , linguistics ,translation studies and several other language courses.

In addition to her undergraduate studies, she is currently a foreign policy analyst and a regular co-author for several diplomatic publications. She is an expert on trade diplomacy and security issues in the Indian ocean arc. Her current diplomatic focus on South Asian regional affairs combined with Sri Lanka's emerging foreign policy outlook has led to several scholarly features with the Indian-based Sri Lankan PhD Research scholar attached to JSIA in India. Currently, her main focus is on international affairs surrounding the South Asian region and on small island states like Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

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